There are several executive functioning skills children should come to master. They are important in order to make their lives easier and allow them to be more successful in their endeavors. But first, what is executive function? As Carolyn Carpeneti defines it, executive function is “the ability to plan, organize, manage time, initiate action, and achieve goals.” Executive function skills often do not fully develop in the human brain until the late teens and mid twenties.
Caroyln Carpeneti’s personal experiences with her own son’s education inspired her to write her debut book. It is called Taking Flight: Mastering Executive Function (April 2016). This book explores the silent epidemic of weak and delayed executive functioning skills. It also takes a close look at the impact it has on children, families and the education industry.
What are executive functioning skills?
Executive functioning skills by age revolve around managing themselves and their resources to accomplish age appropriate tasks and goals. Executive functioning skills often seem basic to those who have a strong executive function skill set. However, they are a learned skill set that involves laying out a plan and proceeding through the plan in an organized fashion. Carolyn Carpeneti’s book shares hard-won, practical solutions for helping children and teens in mastering executive function. The book aims to help teach our children how to accomplish executive function tasks. In this way, they successfully meet expectations and even unlock their dreams and potential.
Here is an exclusive book excerpt on the importance of executive function in children. The book goes into detail on why and how to teach executive functioning skills. This book excerpt is published here with permission.
Excerpt from Taking Flight: Mastering Executive Function book
(Excerpt shared from Chapter 4, Pages 89-92)
How might a person with underdeveloped executive function struggle? Let’s see how he might clean up his room.
To him, there’s no real “secret” to how you do it. Everything you do in the room carries equal importance. It might be a lot easier if he were to prioritize. For instance, if he’s standing on a mound of clothes, and he keeps tripping over them as he walks around the room to clean other things, then it would probably be more efficient to pick up the clothes first so he stops tripping. Throw the dirty ones in the hamper perhaps. Put each of the clean shirts on a hanger. Return the other clean clothes to their respective drawers. Those books he’s standing right next to? It might be more efficient to place them on the shelf so he’ll have more room to work. Or to first clear his desk.
Instead of looking at cleaning his room as one big task titled “Clean My Room,” it would be much more efficient if he were to “chunk it out” and create mini-tasks (pick up the clothes, clean the desk) and do them in the most logical order. The room would get cleaned more quickly, and with less agitation. Someone with strong executive function will naturally chunk it out.
Executive Functioning Skills For Better, More Efficient Choices
Have you ever thought, “Oh my God, why can’t my kid simply get her homework done? It’s not that complicated!” Yet, as Diane points out, doing homework is not a “one-step thing” but a sequence. You must:
- Write the assignment down.
- Bring it home.
- Possibly bring home or procure necessary materials.
- Remember to look at it/take it out.
- Do it.
- Put it back in the backpack.
- Turn it in or e-mail or post it.
Long-term assignments require even more breaking down. You have to divide the whole into its parts, then line up the pieces in a sequence, then assign each piece a due date.
If you’re someone who doesn’t prioritize, it may well be because you see everything as having equal importance. If you’re someone with weak executive function, you may not be able to hold several thoughts in your head simultaneously. In fact, it’s not so much a speed issue as a congestion issue. Imagine what it would be like if your mind included current thoughts as well as lots and lots of “backup” thoughts, the kind of stuff that many of us “store away” so we can get other things done. To use Diane’s air traffic control analogy: Aircraft had better be moving in and out regularly and logically, rather than all coming in at once, or moving haphazardly, or all getting stacked up over the airport, for everything to work the way it’s supposed to.
Not only do those with weak executive function encounter difficulty in school and in their daily life, but they face additional challenges because of how others may see them.
The Importance Of Improving Executive Function Skills By Age
If you lack adequate organizational ability past an age when it develops in most kids, then people might consider your behavior and actions to be intentional. They see a lack of motivation, a lack of trying. It’s just “who you are.” They may lack the awareness to think, “Well, that’s an executive function issue that will improve over time, and then she’ll perform very differently.” Weak executive functioning is not always an easy problem to diagnose, and behaviors associated with it may be misconstrued. Some may think that the problem could be easily fixed if the person would only try a little harder. To add to the challenge, many people with weak executive function are teenagers. So they’re also navigating the emotionally charged, impulsive, self-absorbed, at times self-destructive stage of adolescence. Just look at some of those studies that show electroencephalograms (EEGs) of the teenage brain.
This could well be the making of a major social epidemic, though one that’s somewhat hidden. Some people simply need more time to develop this set of skills, or at least get it to a level that’s adequate. But if it hasn’t yet developed during the latter years of high school and the early years of college, exactly when parental expectations and the rigid structure of many educational institutions are working against such patience and individualized attention, then there’s a potential disaster waiting to happen.
Some people may never fully master executive function. The problem is more prominent in boys than girls. More and more studies on the subject are being done. As Diane pointed out to me, markers in younger children may show a predisposition for executive function issues. They include having trouble with speech articulation issues—consonants and vowels aren’t clean and crisp—after age four. This may be indicative of a sequencing issue, since one must move the facial muscles and tongue in a specific sequence for the words to come out clearly and crisply. For kids five and older, struggling with handwriting (having difficulty transitioning from fisted to pinched grasp and moving the hand from top to bottom and left to right) may be another indicator.
Experts in the field, as well as parents, have come to understand that stigmatizing people, especially kids, for their weak executive function behavior is neither justified nor helpful.
I hope you found this excerpt insightful. The first step is recognizing the importance of executive functioning skills. The second is realizing this is a skill set that must be taught. To learn more about how to help children in mastering executive functioning skills, refer to the Taking Flight: Mastering Executive Function book. Feel free to share your questions for suggestions about executive functioning skills children should master.